February 15, 2013: The South Korean Army got a valuable and welcome gift recently when Google announced that it had coordinated the efforts of many volunteers to create a new, much more complete, map of North Korea for Google Maps. While South Korea has available secret satellite photo maps provided by the Americans, the Google version is more current and unclassified. This makes it easier to plan for future operations in North Korea, as South Korea troops and commanders can freely use the Google Maps version. Classified documents have many restrictions placed on their use.
An invasion from the north has long been the main military threat from North Korea. But over the last decade, as North Korea suffered more famine, economic decline, and civil disorder the South Korean military has been planning an advance into the north to aid people caught in the expected collapse of the North Korean dictatorship. To carry out this task, a lot of civilian aid workers need accurate maps of the north. They need these maps before the humanitarian move to the north takes place. Google Maps has provided a solution and something the U.S. and South Korea can check against their classified maps. The American military already has experience with Internet-connected amateur experts to exchange information and find things the professionals often miss.
This new North Korean map was created with the help of thousands of volunteers (“crowdsourcing”). This is an increasingly popular technique, especially using services like Google Earth that constantly produces vast quantities of new data. The new North Korean map shows locations of roads, prison camps, and military bases that North Korea had long considered secret information (a common practice in communist dictatorships).
Google Earth has been increasingly troublesome for the North Korean rulers. One of the many things that North Korea’s ruling class fears is public exposure of what they have and what they do to hang onto it. For example, Google Earth revealed the wealth of the North Korean rulers and the many prison camps holding any who would threaten that rule. In the nine years since Google Earth first appeared, many people and groups have gone over the satellite photos of North Korea and shared their finds with each other and the world. Thus we know of the palatial estates of the North Korean rulers and recreational facilities closed to all but the elite. There are also extensive and detailed photos of military sites, as well as the network of prison work camps holding at least one percent of the population. This is causing the North Korean rulers image problems at home and abroad. Worse, the population of North Korea is slowly coming to know about the Google revelations.